It's easy for someone newly infatuated with Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan to come across hours-long recordings of his performances on YouTube. In one such recording, for a concert at Wolverhampton, an announcer introduces members of Nusrat's party in order of, if you may, their place in the party's organisational structure. Last to take the stage unsurprisingly is Nusrat. In introducing him, the announcer pushes away the paper he is reading, commands the audience to hold their nerve and lists Nusrat's international presence. The crowd cheers and applauds and in walks the man himself, royally clad with a Karakul hat atop his head. Nusrat stands on the stage for what seems a few seconds too many, spurred by the unending applause and in an awkwardly restrictive manner acknowledges the response.
In another world separated by time and space, another qawwal has just walked in through a shamiyana. His hair is long and curly but appears clean. No one notices him as he melds into the crowd and seats himself.
I ask him if there are recordings of his work and if I can purchase them anywhere. To this his response is somewhere between a yes and a no....
For a person to not be noticed is rather strange for the space where this shamiyana is set up—in the colloquial middle of the desert, and more specifically nearly 22km from Rahim Yar Khan in Cholistan where a square kilometre of land features, on average, nine settled humans. The shamiyana is for an event which, along with providing an opportunity for politicking and raising the case of the desert to local politicians, is a gesture to welcome a group of 14 students from Lahore. This is the event's third iteration and for the past two years, Preetam Das, a local journalist has welcomed (rather royally, given the circumstances) participants of KhanaBadosh, a 12-day road trip organised by a student initiative named Hum-Aaahang which makes stops at 25 cities in an attempt to appreciate the diversity of the country on its way to Karachi, the final stop. A banner with the title "Cholistani Shaam LUMS Kay Students Kay Naam" printed in green Arial-bold serves as the backdrop for the stage. A sound engineer sits to the left, his equipment studded with innumerable dials; the mics on the stage as well all the lighting get their power from the diesel generator which stands behind the shamiyana. The cook for the event, as I learn later, is employed by "the Shaikh" at his palace a short, dusty ride away from the shamiyana.
In this part of the world, the influence of the Shaikhs is unmistakable. On our way to Cholistan, our bus drives past a fruit orchard which is fenced and carries the UAE flag at the occasional plaque. When we get to a pukki road, called the Shaikh Zayed Road, we are told by a local who is serving as our navigator that it was commissioned by the Shaikhs and that it links the Shaikh Zayed International Airport (built, again with the intention of serving these Arabian visitors) to Rahim Yar Khan and beyond. Our guide tells us of the hunting exploits that acres of uninhibited land enable for the Shaikhs. As far and wide as the eye can see this land is empty and the odd bush is the only vegetation present. This nothingness stretches so far wide that, we are told later, it borders India at one point. When tensions between the two countries peaked in 1999, India is said to have planted the expanse with a profusion of landmines. As we race the sun, speeding across the neatly laid tarmac to reach our rendezvous in Cholistan, our driver is careful to avoid any of the seemingly unchaperoned camels crossing the road.
When we stop at a point on this road for a breather, the group disperses. Some walk to a nearby teela, the others busy themselves with photography. I stick near the bus with the driver. From where we are headed, an old man with a stick in his hands walks towards us and stops near our bus, a Toyota Coaster. His jacket is tattered and dusty. He asks us if our bus has anything he can eat. I take him to be a beggar until he explains that he has been walking in the desert all day looking for a camel that disbanded from his herd. He seems optimistic. "Mil jayega," he says and as we present him with food he smiles faintly before walking away.
On reaching the shamiyana, our expectations of what is and what is not possible in the desert are far surpassed.
The ceremony kicks off and the line-up of artists waiting to perform seems never-ending. A comedy sketch by a local called Aaru Bhagat sets things up. He jokes to us about mosquito newscasters and an unfortunate fly that lost its life in the city. His act is followed by local musicians, dancers and instrumentalists. We repeatedly hear the name of Mohan Bhagat at the event and of his tour to London, under the patronage of the Pakistan People's Party. Nearly four hours in, the event is still going strong and a plethora of artists are still waiting for their turn.
I'm fond of taking photographs, but the beauty of what is being played and sung leaves me motionless.
As we progress further into the night, the local politicians take their leave and the audience thins out. Yet, the vibe in the tent is strong; this event does not look as if it is going to end any time soon. By this time, only a couple of members of our group are awake and at this point, to my left and the front of the stage, I notice some activity. A couple of people and organisers of the event are tugging at a person's hand and asking him to perform. The man resists, but eventually takes his well-worn jacket off—the Korean characters sewed on the breast pocket speaking of the many seas it has travelled on its way to its final destination—and makes himself comfortable with the harmonium on the stage. He gives his hair, which is long and curly but appears clean, a flick when he is ready. He plays a note and looks at the tabla player who has played for nearly every performer of the night, nudging him thus to follow the tune. He falters initially but after a little practice, the tabla falls in sync with the harmonium. Satisfied, the singer proceeds with the introduction.
He mentions that he was on his way to Sadiqabad from a different event and that none of what is happening right now is part of his plan; he says he has just dropped by having heard that an event was taking place in Cholistan. As he performs in an alien language with recognisable words few and far between, the tabla player loses rhythm repeatedly. In all such instances, the singer plays singular notes again for the tabla player to harmonise with the tune. When this aahangi is eventually reached, for brief moments still, the result is inspiring; the minimal sound of the harmonium and the tabla is moving. The artist proceeds to an Urdu ghazal and follows it with another. These Urdu ghazals, the words in them now understandable and familiar, coupled with the music the two are putting together, raise the performance to an indescribable quality. My neighbour, a bearded man of raging youth who had earlier in the night had his fair share of fun and cursing with the dancers and performers, has now fallen silent. The only words he speaks now are those of praise. As the singer continues, all sense of time and place are lost.
After a point, the old tabla player leaves and is replaced by Aaru Bhagat, the comedian who began the night. As soon as Aaru flicks at the tabla's skin, the singer sits up and takes note, straightening his posture. The singer plays a note and Aaru follows it impeccably.
The plan is hazy: reach Sadiqabad at 9am, visit Ashiq Hussain and record his work on a borrowed recorder I am not entirely confident of operating...
Bolstered by the skill of Aaru's tabla playing, the singer like a cricketer who gets into the groove and outdoes even himself on the high, performs another couple of ghazals. I'm fond of taking photographs, but the beauty of what is being played and sung—there are words about meeting a beloved after a lifetime, of unfulfilled expectations, of intoxicating eyes—leaves me motionless. All I can manage is to note down lyrics to look them up later. When the performance is over, so is the night. The organisers arrange their equipment and the singer walks towards the exit.
That is where I first meet him.
Chasing a mirage?
We exchange pleasantries, and my praise is awkward. My first question is about his name. Ashiq Hussain Qawwal, he says. I ask him if there are recordings of his work and if I can purchase them anywhere. To this his response is somewhere between a yes and a no. Recordings do exist as cassettes and sell in Sadiqabad, he says, but they are hard to find. As we walk out, he laments at the imperfections in the set-up, the out-of-tune harmonium, the problems with the tabla player and stresses that he was never meant to perform here, referring to me all the while as "bhai". He says he has a qawwal party of his own and concludes the conversation. I ask for his number and ask him when I should call. A member of his party teases that I should call him late in the night. An irate Ashiq Hussain shuts the man up and he reads out the digits. We shake hands and he goes his way. From the shamiyana, I see him sitting in his white Mehran with his party and leaving.
Around 15 days later when I reach Lahore—after we've traversed the heart of Sindh (including Mohenjo-Daro, Larkana, Mithi and the border town of Nagarparkar) and made the final stopover of the trip in Karachi—I call the number Ashiq Hussain had given me and expect nothing. I hoped to at least get his manager. But when the phone rings and I hear his voice, I am pleasantly surprised and joyous. I can guess that Ashiq Hussain is too. He questions if I am indeed calling from Lahore. From the lawn next to the library in my university, where I am anxiously pacing around, I respond with a yes. We discuss his performance, he tells me of his love for the ghazal and I ask again if I can get hold of any recordings of his work. As this line of conversation moves forward, Ashiq Hussain makes a generous offer. He says he can record something and have it sent my way. In the excitement that this gives rise to, we both forget to discuss the logistics of it all. Needless to say, the plan fails and after a month of back and forth in which the purity of the man's intentions and his love for his craft becomes clear as day, I find myself in an intercity bus headed to Sadiqabad. The plan is hazy: reach Sadiqabad at 9 in the morning, visit Ashiq Hussain and record his work (on a recorder I have borrowed from a friend and am not entirely confident of operating) and leave for Lahore the same day.
When he is playing, the otherwise tentative and human Ashiq Hussain becomes godly and confident. His fingers move like fire on the harmonium...
When I reach Sadiqabad railway station, the place of our rendezvous, Ashiq Hussain directs me to let him speak to a rickshaw driver and tells him the way. As the rickshaw moves to its destination, Udit Narayan's voice silences the rickshaw's noise. The accentuated bass line and words—congratulatory ones for a beloved's marriage—add a festive mood to the occasion and although I keep telling myself that a headache is around the corner, nothing of the sort happens.
It is only when I reach Ashiq Hussain's house that I realise how close this plan had come to disintegrating. For one, Ashiq Hussain had only just reached his house from an overnight show (which he tells me must still be going on right now, as musical mehfils are generally known to) in Rohri when I called. In the scramble of returning to his house, he tells me, he almost forgot to charge his phone; had he not remembered to do so, I would not be here at this moment. Another fact makes the haziness of the plan blatantly obvious; he says he was expecting me in the evening or sometime later. Then there is the question of me and my motives. He questions me on what brings me to his city and if I have relatives or friends here. When I respond with a no, I feel that this tension settles. Ashiq Hussain's son brings tea for us and when he is done with his drink, Ashiq Hussain appears less spent and drowsy.
We discuss the plan. I have a sound recorder on which I want to record whatever you want to sing and take it back to Lahore and see where that takes us, I tell him. He asks me if there is anything in particular I want to listen to. The three ghazals still on my mind—"Itni Muddat Baad", "Dil-e-Umeed" and "Ankhon Se Pii"— from the night in Cholistan are my obvious suggestions. Ashiq Hussain now directs his son, Shahid to set up the equipment and in the cabinet which houses two harmoniums, covered by tarpal bags, he asks his son to pick "German". When Shahid is cleaning "German" of the dust it has accumulated in the journey from Rohri to Sadiqabad, he swipes the cloth he is using in horizontal strokes. One of such strokes removes the black covering on a couple of the harmonium's keys.
Ashiq Hussain looks on in horror.
With a ferocious "chhor de" directed at his son, he leaves the charpoy he is sitting on and squats near "German". Like a little kid trying all manner of combinations to repair a dear toy, he takes hold of the broken covering and places it on the key. This, he realises is of little use and stares at this son, who smirks. Ashiq Hussain's other son who sits with the tabla ready in front of him has been witness to the entire episode and looks at his brother disapprovingly.
The recording, raw and unedited, features conversations, coughs, the buzzing of flies sitting on the mic and takes me back to the room where all the magic has happened.
Before Ashiq Hussain begins, I ask him what sparked his interest in music. It was in 1965, he replies, when his mother died and Noor Jehan had come out with "Mera Dhol Sipahya" that he first fell in love with music. A cousin of Abida Parveen served as his teacher for classical training. It becomes evident in this conversation that music defines Ashiq Hussain; music is what he thinks, breathes and lives. And it is not only in the act of playing for an audience or with a harmonium or tabla that this attachment with music manifests itself. While I am there a number of children walk in and out of our room; all of them are being trained by him. His own sons are players in the group, while another doubles as a dhol player and conducts shows of his own. Outside this too, even the act of flicking away his cigarette's ash is somehow musical for Ashiq Hussain. Every time the ash on his cigarette builds up, he snaps his thumb and middle finger in a quick, perfect click, clearing the ash. Ashiq Hussain, then, is a living embodiment of his miraas—musical heritage, if you like—and his life revolves around taking this miraas forward.
On his style and way of singing, he expresses—with justified self-esteem—pride over the purity of his Rajasthani accent, another exponent of which, Mai Dhai, has been making waves of late. Ashiq Hussain's response borders on indifference on the issue of recording his music. He casually remarks, as he did on that night in Cholistan, that he was recorded once but the recording failed to gain traction. The slight moroseness this gives rise to vanishes as he begins playing. In a recording that lasts two hours and amounts to, as I find out on returning home, around 700 megabytes, he sings a total of nine ghazals/kalaam. When he is playing, the otherwise tentative and human Ashiq Hussain becomes godly and confident. His fingers move like fire on the harmonium and much like Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan's signature point to the heavens, Ashiq stamps his fist downward when he hits a concluding sur much like a conqueror stamping his flag.
In the set he plays, there is a mixture of Urdu, Punjabi and Seraiki tunes. From welcoming the evening of Laal Shahbaz Qalandar's urs with a groovy, festive tune to Ataullah Eisakhelvi's "Dil Lagaya Tha" and Jagjit Singh's "Kal Chaudhvin Kee Raat", the list features everything I had visited him for. When we are done, Ashiq Hussain stresses that I stop for food. With the fear of burdening him more than I already have, I decline the offer and ask for permission to leave.
Since I am done early, I take a connecting bus to Multan. Once I board it, I plug my earphones into the recorder to listen to what I have. The recording, raw and unedited, features conversations, coughs, the buzzing of flies sitting on the mic and takes me back to the room where all the magic has happened. Only, the recording abruptly stops and I fear the worst. As the track skips, another recording from the day plays and I, panicking, wonder if I have lost everything. Before I can think of controlling the damage, I realise that I have been using the fast forward button on the recorder wrong all this while. In this moment, as at the start of the day and throughout, I feel an invisible, inexplicable force guiding and pushing me forward.